Friday, June 5, 2009

How to Survive Graduate School

Now that I not only got my PhD but also have worked for a year as a professor and found a tenure-track position, I would like to offer some advice to people who are only just embarking on this long and difficult journey.

1. Forget about courses. In the first couple of years of the doctoral program, we are usually expected to take a number of classes. At that point, we still think within our undergrad or Master's framework, which forces us to try and get the best grades in every course we take. As a result, we dedicate an inordinate amount of time and effort to these courses to the detriment of things that can really help us in the future.

The sad reality is that when we go on the job market nobody cares whether we got an H or an HP (or an A or an A-) in a job interview.

2. The goal of every essay we write in grad school should be to provide us with a cache of good 1st drafts for articles we will be able to publish in the first couple of years on the tenure track.

3. Use any opportunity you can to teach a course in your future field. If your department only allows you to teach language courses, look for a way to teach literature outside of the department. If you have to do it for free on a volunteer basis, it's totally worth it. This will be incredibly helpful during job interviews.

4. Plan and start a research agenda. Publish and go to conferences. Don't tell yourself that you are not prepared because you are. Don't tell yourself that you don't have time for it. It's better to have less time for everything else. Confronting a job interview with an empty CV will be very scary.

5. Don't spend too many years working on the thesis. The best thing is to finish as soon as possible. As sad as it sounds, your future employers will never read the thesis or even a small part of it. All they care about is when you will be done.

6. Employers want people who can be used in many different ways. We might not like it, but they want to hire somebody who can teach as wide a variety of courses as possible to save money. If you consider yourself a specialist on Cervantes, it might be a good idea to keep that to yourself. For the purposes of the job interviews, we are all generalists, we are all prepared to teach pretty much anything.

To support this image of yourself, it might be a good idea to prepare a collection of syllabi for a variety of courses covering everything within your discipline. Ask friends who are teaching courses to share their syllabi with you.

7. Start collecting student evaluations and letters (or e-mails) expressing gratitude for your teaching.

8. Think about what your future professional life should ideally be like. Do you want to place more emphasis on being a teacher or a researcher? In this, you should only listen to yourself and not let any one bully you onto a path that isn't really yours.

9. A life in the academia has a lot of advantages. More free time, freedom to do things your own way, never having to work a 9 to 5 job in a cubicle with 2 weeks of vacation a year. You get a lot of respect from people, which is very flattering. I have to confess that I really enjoy saying in a very casual way: "I'm a professor at Cornell."

Still, it's not a life for everyone. It's a very itinerant lifestyle that makes you feel uprooted and lonely very often. If you are into settling down, it might not be a good life for you.

These things have to be considered before you start on this path.

Right now, the job situation in the academia is really bad. Lots of talented people don't find jobs, while ignorant people who suck at both teaching and research get good positions because of nepotism. Still, I really hope that the situation improves and gifted, dedicated scholars find their way into grad school and eventually into great jobs.

Good luck, dear colleagues!
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Anonymous said...

You advice is very good, but very field-specific, and ignores some important realities of the grad school.

Unless you have either a trust fund or a good fellowship covering the whole grad school term (which 1% of people have), you have to support yourself getting minor merit-based fellowships and grants, as well as TA-ships and RA-ships.

Consequently, you have to excel in your courses. Because, unlike your research, their outcome is more quantitatively measurable, and decisions about those minor scholarships are made largely based on your course marks.

You teach what you are told to teach and what you are paid for.

You do research you get paid for. The supervisor paying you the RA-ship from his/her grant wants you to do what he/she promised to do to his/her grantees, not something what may interest you at given moment.

Your supervisor decides to what conferences you go, because he/she is paying for it. Of course one can ask for external grant, or just go with one's own money, but one can't do it as often as one would like.

"More free time" in a faculty position??? That must be in a teaching-oriented institution...


Clarissa said...

Of course, I'm talking about the Humanities. Evidently, things are very different in Sciences and not in a good way.